Trumpets Part 2 – Trumpets in the Band

Trumpets in the Band

I’ve held off on writing the second part of the trumpet chapter for various reasons.  The main reason I’ve waited is so that I don’t malign either the instrument or the players.

So much for good intentions.

Let’s start with a bit of history.  In the beginning, there were trumpets.  Long, valveless trumpets usually pitched in D.  These instruments were used very much akin to how the timpani are used: to accent the tonic and dominant and occasionally to call out a simple melody.  That is to say, their use was very limited.

Then came the cornet, and the trumpet was bypassed.  The cornet could do things that the still valveless trumpet simply couldn’t – play chromatically.  The cornet was the new king.  Much ink was wasted over the merits and virtues of both instruments.  Eventually, the trumpet had valves added and it slowly started to take over the cornet’s role.  The old large trumpet (in D or F) shrank to the tiny B-flat Trumpet.  Note, this is not the modern Piccolo Trumpet, but our normal everyday B-flat instrument.  The difference between the two instruments shrank, and the need for there being separate parts diminished.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, the standard was 3 B-flat Cornet parts and 2 B-flat Trumpet parts in the band.  The Trumpets were the supplemental instruments and the Cornets were the leaders.  Then came Lincolnshire Posy.  Grainger’s masterpiece is the first major modern work that does not use Cornets.  The Cornet’s death was imminent.

I still maintain that the Cornet has its uses, but please see my posts on that instrument for those thoughts.

Today we have a wall of trumpets on the back row of our bands.  Blech.  It’s too many.  Trumpet is one of those instruments that is best left to one on a part.  There is absolutely no reason to have 2 to 3 players on a single trumpet part.  In educational bands, we see it has making sure that all of our players have something to do, but this is done to the detriment of the music and the integrity of the composition.

We also have a situation whereby the trumpets play well more than half of the time.  I am going to use Wagner’s Das Rheingold as an example of effective trumpet use.  Wagner’s Ring is well-known for its use of heavy brass.  Let’s see how Wager treats the trumpet.  For my analysis, I will just be focused on the 1st trumpet part.  The trumpets first make their entrance in mm. 112 and play for only 24 measures then they are silent.  These 24 bars are in full orchestral tutti.  Then the trumpets are silent for a total of 397 measures.  In over 500 measures of large orchestral scoring, Wagner uses the trumpet in only 24 measures – or 4.5% of the time.  Compare this to the Horns, which never stop playing for more than a dozen measures at any time, or even the trombones and tuba which play far more frequently than do the trumpets.  The second and third trumpets, in fact, do not reappear in Wagner’s score until the beginning of the Second Act (84 pages in to the full orchestral score).  That’s 24 measures of playing in 24 minutes of music.

Scene 1 from Das Rheingold

What I’m trying to say, is that the trumpet is a magical instrument, and Wagner knew it better than anyone.  He reserved its strident and noble tones for only moments of great clarity and force.  As bandestrators, we should never forget this.  Ever.

“I must admit that I have a violent aversion against the manner of using the trumpet as a melody-carrying instrument (that is, the trumpet alone with just a simple accompaniment).”  That quote is from Richard Strauss (another composer who wrote extremely well for the trumpet with many major trumpet passages).  It still holds true.

All this said about how to score for the trumpet, I have said nothing about what should or could constitute a trumpet section in a band.  What is clear is that a single instrument must – I repeat MUST – be on the part.  Doubling the part is an abhorrence that should be ended without delay!

Even in the largest band, 4 trumpet parts is more than plenty.  Each of these players can double on Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat instruments so your palate is wider than most would consider.  If we add to this four an Alto and Bass Trumpet, we can have a larger and more well-balanced section.  The Alto Trumpet can also double on any of the above trumpets, whereas the Bass Trumpet cannot (being more often than not played by a trombonist or a euphoniumist).  IF we want to extend this range even further, I think it would be exciting to add a Cimbasso at the very bottom of the trumpet ensemble for sheer power and weight.

Here is a theoretical ensemble:

  • Player 1 – Piccolo and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 2 – Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 3 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 4 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 5 – Alto and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 6 – Bass Trumpet
  • Player 7 – Cimbasso

This gives us a section with 6 different timbral colors, numerous doubling, and countless possibilities.

Remember with trumpets, less is more.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Note the use of an all trumpet ensemble to begin this work.  These trumpets only play in the beginning and at the very end of the work.